For credit card issuers, determining what on their websites frustrates consumers and what magic combination of factors lead prospects to successfully apply online is a complex science.

Credit card issuers’ websites constantly are evolving, but Keynote Competitive Research, the competitive analysis division of Keynote Systems, an Internet and mobile cloud testing and monitoring firm, recently conducted extensive research by examining the sites of eight top brands to isolate the factors consumers say make a credit card issuer’s website appealing.

Drawing on a group of 1,815 adult Internet users from 12 U.S. regions from mid-November to mid-December 2011, Keynote assigned each participant to examine a single issuer’s credit card marketing website.

The goal for each participant was to find a specific credit card they would want to apply for from a single issuer, then go through the process of applying, stopping short of seeking final issuer approval. Participants answered dozens of questions about which sites provided the most satisfying and most frustrating experiences.

Combining consumer feedback from 83 different factors, U.S. Bank came out on top for overall customer experience, the firm said. PNC Financial Services Group Inc. ranked second in overall customer experience, followed by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Other issuers Keynote examined included Citigroup Inc., Capital One Financial Corp., American Express Co., Discover Financial Services and Bank of America Corp.

U.S. Bank’s overall site design helped nudge it ahead of other issuers, Christopher Musto, the firm’s general manager, tells PaymentsSource.

“U.S. Bank’s site-organization worked well and led people easily to locate the type of card they wanted and also made it easy for site visitors to see what online account-management looks like for the brand,” Musto says.

Citi won the race for technical responsiveness and speed. U.S. Bank and PNC ranked second and third, respectively, in overall speed.

To measure technical response, Keynote employees performed thousands of measurements of each issuer’s site at 12 different U.S. locations over the month-long testing period during the hours when sites tend to have the highest traffic, 8 p.m. to midnight.

“Citi was fast, and it was consistently fast,” Musto says. “It didn’t matter what part of the country you were in or what time it was, operations were quick, and pages of all types always loaded faster than other sites.”

Though sites are constantly evolving, most have reached a level of sophistication that compares very favorably with other industries that rely heavily on consumer online engagement, Musto says.

“One of the challenges card issuers face is the fact that most have a lot of card choices, and there are many ways to lead consumers through the selection process,” he says.

The difficulty comes in balancing the perception of providing consumers with many options but not overwhelming a site visitor with too many choices at once, Musto suggests.

“Some websites are more effective than others at creating a landing page that gives a clear initial idea of what a site has to offer, without too much copy, that gives the perception of plenty of choices and a simple process to narrow the field,” he says.

Keynote, which evaluates website effectiveness across many industries, sells its detailed research to many of the top issuers but does not disclose those that purchase it.

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